Washington Wednesday: The Democratic presidential field

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 4th of September, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, the Democratic primaries.

It’s a crowded field and the candidates are pitching to the left. But will playing to the party’s more liberal fringe hurt them in the general election?

WORLD Magazine national editor Jamie Dean is following the race and joins us now to talk about it.

Start out by reminding us – just how crowded is this field?

JAMIE DEAN, GUEST: It’s pretty crowded, but the field is narrowing. We’ve been watching about two dozen candidates competing for the Democratic nomination, but that’s likely to be cut in half over the next few weeks. Only 10 of those candidates qualified for the next debate scheduled for September.

REICHARD: Okay: give us the rundown. Who’s in.

DEAN: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, and Julian Castro.

REICHARD: How many of those are serious contenders?

DEAN: Well, it’s important to remember that many people didn’t see Donald Trump as a serious contender at this point in the GOP primaries in 2015, and that obviously changed. But at the moment, Biden, Sanders, and Warren are far out-polling the others.

REICHARD: In your latest story, you talk about how the primary has taken a far left turn. What do you make of that push?

DEAN: I think the thing that’s interesting about that push is that many of the candidates are promoting positions that even most Democrats don’t seem to agree with. It’s not just that they’re hugging the outside of the left lane, they seem to be swerving into an entirely different lane.

REICHARD: What are some examples?

DEAN: One of the biggest examples is the push for Medicare for All. Joe Biden has not rubber-stamped that approach, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders have gone all in with plans that would apparently would abolish private insurance. 

Meanwhile, a recent CBS poll found two-thirds of Democratic voters favor a plan that does include a public option, but not one that would eliminate private insurance entirely. And remember, just four years ago, Hillary Clinton was arguing Medicare for All was a bad idea. In early 2016, Clinton said that Bernie Sanders’s healthcare proposal would “never, ever come to pass.” And now many of the Democratic candidates are going in that very direction as a sort of mainstream idea

Another example is de-criminalizing the border. About a dozen candidates have supported the idea of making illegal border entry a civil offense instead of a criminal one. But a recent poll reported that American voters oppose that idea by about 66-27.

So, again, you have candidates pushing positions that even many of their own party members probably don’t like.

REICHARD: Why go so far?

DEAN: We’re still early in the presidential race, and the people who tend to pay the closest attention at this point are party activists and more liberal party members. They’re the ones who tend to donate time and money, and follow the campaigns closely at this point. So candidates are trying to reach them. As Henry Olsen put it: “They have to build a base before they build a majority.”

The question is: What happens in a general election? You might win the primary, but could you win independent or swing voters with those positions? That’s the big gamble they’re taking.

REICHARD: Does that put someone like Joe Biden in a good position?

DEAN: It does in some ways. He does have something of a ready-made base from serving two terms as vice president, and so he could use that to build an image as the more moderate choice among the candidates.

But we’ve already seen him buckle under the pressures that come with being the moderate. The biggest example is his change of heart on the Hyde Amendment. For decades, Biden took pro-abortion positions, but he did support the Hyde Amendment – which bars the use of federal funds to pay directly for abortion in most cases.

He re-upped his support for Hyde in May, but then faced withering criticism from other candidates. And within a week’s time, he had caved. He said he now supports overturning Hyde. That might bring some short-term relief for Biden, but it seems like a such long-term miscalculation when it comes to potential supporters who might be put off by an extreme position on abortion.

REICHARD: Changing gears, you also wrote about the Democratic candidates’ religious backgrounds. What did you learn on that front?

DEAN: There is a lot of religious diversity among the candidates. Biden is Catholic, and Sen. Warren talks about her background in the United Methodist Church. Sen. Sanders has long said he’s not actively religious, but this time around he’s referenced his Jewish background, particularly when it comes to the need to fight white supremacy.

Sen. Kamala Harris has talked about attending both a Hindu temple and a Baptist church when she was growing up, and her husband is Jewish. Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign has hired a South Carolina pastor to reach out to African American churches in that state. And Booker seems very at ease when he addresses church crowds.

It’s worth pointing out that at times Booker has used Scripture for rather jarring ends. Early in the confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Booker was warning against what he presumably thought would be a pro-life position from the judge, and he said: “We are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”

So just because candidates are talking about religion, it doesn’t mean they’re all talking about the same thing.

REICHARD: Who has talked about religion the most?

DEAN: I’m not sure who’s talked about it the most, but one of the most vocal candidates has been Pete Buttigieg, who is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Buttigieg is gay and he’s Episcopalian, and he rejects historic, biblical teaching about homosexuality.

He’s criticized Vice President Mike Pence for his biblical views on sexuality. Buttigieg said he would like to tell Pence: Your quarrel isn’t with me, it’s with my Creator.

Now, it’s interesting that when Buttigieg hired a faith outreach director for his campaign, he hired a Unitarian Universalist. We’ll have to see what that means when it comes to reaching out to religious voters.

REICHARD: Do you get a sense of how Buttigieg or other candidates would engage religious voters who don’t share their beliefs?

DEAN: I think the most concrete answer to that question comes in the form of the Equality Act. All of the major Democratic candidates have said they support this legislation that passed the House earlier this year, but likely won’t pass the Senate unless it flips to Democratic control next year.

The Equality Act would essentially prohibit any form of perceived LGBTQ discrimination in public spaces, and it doesn’t include any religious exceptions. Religious freedom advocates say that could be a big problem for Christian colleges, Christian adoption agencies, and other religious institutions trying to operate according to biblical principles.

I spoke about this with Michael Wear, who is an evangelical and was the faith outreach director for President Obama’s campaign in 2012. And he said the Democratic candidates are going to have to face questions like: What is their vision for how religious groups hold onto an historic, traditional sexual ethic? What is their vision for how they fit into society?

Wear says the Equality Act basically says LGBTQ rights should win out every time. And as a Democrat himself he says that’s just not a responsible approach.

I think that’s going to be a really important story to follow over the course of the 2020 elections – and we’ve plenty of time to go.

REICHARD: Something I know you’ll keep an ear on. Jamie Dean, WORLD Magazine’s national editor. Thank you. 

DEAN: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Paul Sancya/AP) From left: Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren participate in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN on July 30. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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